FEDS TO STATE FIRE TRAINING SYSTEMS: EAT MY POLITICAL DUST!

BY BILL MANNING

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Congress continue to squander one of their greatest potential assets—the fire service—in their shameless display of politics, ignorance, and stupidity.

The DHS terrorism response system looks good on paper and includes some fancy words. But when it comes down to it, all federal fantasies of “immediate” cavalry-type emergency responses aside, in the first hours of Terror on Main Street, Act II, it’s the firefighters who’ll lead the charge into the hot zone and take the greatest hits.

That proven, historical fact makes the political rebuffs—the underfunding of the United States Fire Administration and its concomitant minimization within DHS, the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) holding the FIRE Act program hostage, and so forth—all the more galling. And it’s not helped by trickle-down and (in many cases) dysfunctional state funding mechanisms that pile another layer of politics and bureaucratic incomprehensibilities between the federal money and street firefighter. Some geniuses from New Jersey’s state bureaucracy, for example, convinced themselves, without consulting the fire service, that the best way to use their federal grant money for terrorism preparation and response was to purchase six Level B protective suits for each fire department in the state. The suits just showed up at the fire departments one day.

From the behaviors of federal and state mega-bureaucrats, you’d think that they invented terrorism response (read: haz-mat and USAR response) after September 2001. In the New American Terrorism Response Order, up is down, two plus two equals something other than four, and every available government waterboy and suit-for-hire will be consulted for their response “expertise” before the geniuses running the show think to include the people who have actually done this stuff for 30 years—those same people who’ll risk their lives at the next Ground Zero while the government waterboys marshal their forces for a grand entrance the following day.

Within the exclusionary politics marking the DHS reorganization, which have the fire service playing second fiddle to every organization but the Salvation Army, our state fire training institutions are choking on DHS political dust.

It’s unnecessary, in this forum, to advertise the virtues of the great majority of our state fire training systems to the people who have passed through those doors. Seventy thousand firefighters are trained each year at our state fire training institutions in basic- and advanced-level fire-rescue methodologies—including those for terrorism response. The delivery systems are in place and, in many ways, unmatched. Could the political charlatans take our first-line fire department responses for granted, as they do, without our having benefited from the real-world educational contributions of the state fire academies? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t stop unimaginably stupid politics from rearing its ugly head.

Among the first actions taken by ODP (which, before the Homeland Security Act, had been a relatively small agency within the Department of Justice but to which Congress granted extraordinary size and power within the DHS reorganization) was to hijack the monies the National Fire Academy distributed to state fire training agencies to deliver NFA courses, including terrorism training courses.

Step two, as it pertains to the fire service, was to bypass the state fire training agencies and prop up the so-called terrorism training “consortium,” five law-enforcement training institutions carried over from ODP’s former life, to receive mega-funding (in its most recent pass at the trough it devoured $233 million) to be the primary planets in the first responder advanced-level training universe. My sources tell me the training there is quite good. It ought to be. But the political math equates to ODP keeping it all “in house” and rewarding its army of ex-cops and ex-military consultants who fly around the country at top dollar providing the training. Not to mention, you have to fly and stay there, too—if you qualify to do so.

The North American Fire Training Directors (NAFTD), representing state fire training organizations, has performed due diligence in requesting ODP monies for state fire-based terrorism training. Representatives from NAFTD were told summarily that state fire organizations don’t qualify to receive ODP grants.

Why get 20 or 30 state fire training organizations on line with their existing programs when you can deal out the fire service entirely, keep tight control, and help your pals in the process? It seems not to matter that it’s physically, logistically, and mathematically impossible to train all those who need it through the “cop consortium.” It seems not to matter that you could do it more economically through existing fire service systems. The Little Emperor called ODP is wearing a fine suit, indeed.

How would executive branch agencies feel comfortable in their mismanagement were it not for congressional largesse? Congress, too, threw itself into the fakery, bypassing the state fire training institutions and allocating vast monies to pet universities to conduct terrorism training. A pure case of pork. That the beneficiaries of this largesse do not, or did not, have the training infrastructure or the programs to produce such training was politically irrelevant.

The feds threw $415,000 to the University of Connecticut to conduct terrorism response training for a program already offered and conducted at the Connecticut Fire Academy. Shortly after the extraordinary windfall, a UConn representative was on the phone to the fire academy director asking for advice and direction on how to start and produce a terrorism training program.

Even the 10 state fire training programs connected with state university systems are being cut from the deal. A brand-new training center has been established in Virginia, carrying an initial federal outlay of $5 million, under the cooperative direction of three large universities. The goal? Educate first responders from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia in terrorism response. Go ask the folks at Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and Virginia Fire Programs if this is federal money paying for redundant services. You know the answer.

There’s more to tell. The political savagery and waste are sickening. DHS is a joke, and the fire service is being manhandled by political opportunists who won’t be with you, even spiritually, when you take you final walk, heaven forbid it be early.

Ah, maybe we should just take our SAFER Act and our $750 million in FIRE Act money and shut up already. We’re already choking on too much political dust.

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